On Saturday night, a drumming duo will bend the possibilities of light and sound like Pensacola has yet to see. Jason Hann and Michael Travis form the backbone of jam-band powerhouse String Cheese Incident, but in the last few years, they have teamed up to present something entirely separate and unique to the world – a purely improvisational onslaught that spans across nearly all genres of electronic music. The IN was able to catch up with Hann from his Colorado home-base for a chat about the pair’s musical influences, their new Lotus Flower light set-up, and how they can possibly fill a two and a half hour show with no preconceived game-plan.
IN: How did EOTO form? It all started from you guys hanging around together after String Cheese Incident practice sessions, right?
Hann: When I first joined String Cheese Incident, I stayed mostly at Travis’s place. We’d set up a bunch of random instruments and jam from around ten at night to four or five every morning. After a while, he started adding looping pedals to his bass and guitar. I’d do the same with my world, too – drums and percussion.
Every time we’d take a break, we’d listen to a lot of Internet radio – mostly down-tempo electronic to chill out. Then we’d go back and try to make some beats. That seemed to be the most fun to jam over. Once we introduced the software program Ableton Live into the mix, we were able to control all our individual tracks and put effects on them all on our own. It became a lot of fun and we started to realize we could start getting gigs with the thing.
IN: In the early days, did you find that having EOTO gave you some avenues you might not have known existed musically?
Hann: I’ve been around electronic music since I was a kid. My dad had friends who were studio drummers when drum machines were first starting to be used on a regular basis. I programmed my first drum machine when I was 15 years old, so I’ve been at that intersection of drumming and electronics for a while. I’ve always known this music’s been out there, but EOTO’s been the first band that has allowed me to focus solely on the electronic world.
IN: Talk about the actual process of making the music in such an intensely improvisational way. What’s your role and what’s Travis’s role?
Hann: We both have laptops that all of our equipment goes through. Travis has an array of keyboards, bass, and guitar. I’ve got my drum set, some percussion, and touchscreens that help me navigate. I’ll also throw some vocals out there every now and then. I like to think our process is unique. Everything we do is live and improvised. We’ll go on stage without talking about anything ahead of time. We might throw out a tempo and beats per minute for a starting point, but that’s it. Travis uses a lot of looping to get all the sounds he wants. Every three minutes or so, we’ll try to switch to a new genre or a new scene but there are no hard rules. We just like to keep playing as if we already know what the songs are going to be. It’s entirely different from the way or a jazz or rock musician might improvise off a chord chart or progression.
IN: Are there points in shows where you might feel stuck, like it’s not going anywhere?
Hann: It’s been years since we’ve been in that spot, but it can happen. If we find ourselves overlapping each other, one of us picks up on it pretty quickly. Say he wants to start a synthesizer solo at the same time I want to start a vocal. We might start at the same time, but one of us will back off, or we may just power through it at the same time, staying aware of what the other is doing. Moments like those will hopefully bring something out that we’ve never done before. Just like all improvised music, the magic is in the mistakes and what comes out of them.
IN: How do you keep it from becoming exhausting, especially with your type of music bringing so much physical energy to the table?
Hann: I hit a little bit of a wall last tour, but it was because I took on tour manager duties. My brain just never got a chance to take a break until we hit the stage. We have a larger crew to help out with our Lotus flower stage setup now, so that’s helped a ton. The physical playing night after night after night is never easy, but it’s not exhausting when your only thoughts are about playing. The crowd energy and sound system will kick you into gear in a hurry.
IN: You mentioned the addition of the 3-D Lotus flower set-up to the EOTO live show. What all went into that?
Hann: For a while we’ve known we wanted to step up our production. Until a year and half ago when we started using a projectionist, we always went off the house lights and the house sound system. We knew we could step it up another notch. Light production is a part of the equation in electronic music now, but we wanted something with a more artistic bent to it. We saw videos of this 3-D mapping that could turn buildings into Jello under the right settings and animation. We combined the 3-D mapping with the barebones Lotus flower setup, and knew we had something special. It can look like we’re riding in on some alien spacecraft if the projections are done right. We wanted people to hear our music that might not necessarily be our immediate crowd, and thought this might bring them in.
IN: Can you talk about the evolution of the EOTO sound? It seems like there has been a conscious decision to go to a more dubstep-inspired area recently.
Hann: It continues to be an evolution. That might have been the views towards the end of last fall, but not now. When we started out, our bigger influences were Bassnectar, but that was when he was doing more break-beat stuff. We went to STS9 and Lotus for some of their drum and bass and indie rock vibes. We listened to those guys because we knew they all had established crowds. We always think of ourselves as a live band, and want to attract the crowd that’s into live shows. Around 2008, at Shambhala Music Festival in Canada, we saw DJ Skream drop this aggressive dubstep where the crowd went absolutely nuts. We spent the next few years adding that to our repertoire. But after a while, you get so used to hearing yourself that you get the itch to throw all your grimy knowledge at some of the other electronic genres out there like house and trip-hop. We even take it to a slow and sexy R&B every now and then where I might sing a little D’Angelo. For the ladies, of course.
We can really see the crowd react to the changes. When we started doing dubstep, that was probably our biggest jump in audience, possibly because we were the only act that couple pull it off without backing tracks. At the same time, we had fans that were first with us and weren’t very happy with that dubstep change. Now we have it from both sides – people who don’t like dubstep at all, but really like us, and then people who are really into dubstep, but like how we go through the different moods. When you see us, hopefully it will feel that refreshing.
IN: That’s all I’ve got, Jason. Anything else you’d like to add?
Hann: It’s always fun playing somewhere new, so we’re looking forward to Pensacola. I hear you have a tight-knit, committed bass community. I hope they’re all there to rock it with us.
Photo: EOTO Official